Toronto Star

New COVID-19 shutdown rules could disrupt food supply

- MICHAEL GRAYDON CONTRIBUTO­R Michael Graydon is chief executive officer of Food, Health & Consumer Products of Canada.

With Ontario in the grip of a new wave of COVID-19, it is understand­able that government­s seek action to keep Ontarians safe, but yesterday’s decision by the City of Toronto and the Region of Peel to include food processing facilities in mandatory and inflexible shut downs for even small infection clusters could devastate our food supply.

The City of Toronto and the Region of Peel should immediatel­y clarify that the entire food and consumer goods supply chain is an essential part of critical infrastruc­ture and exempt food processing facilities from this mandate.

The Greater Toronto Area is home to the greatest number of food processing facilities in Canada, supporting supply chains across the country and around the world. This overly prescripti­ve and inflexible mandate puts those supply chains and consumers at tremendous risk.

Shutting down large food processing facilities over as few as five positive COVID-19 cases makes little sense for our country’s most important food processing hub and will seriously jeopardize production of essential goods ranging from pantry staples to hand sanitizers and more.

Facing down spikes in consumer demand of up to 500 per cent in the spring of 2020 and some unsettling shortages, these dedicated workers have managed to secure our food and essential goods’ supplies in the face of unpreceden­ted disruption.

These facilities already operate under the most stringent regulatory requiremen­ts for food safety and hygiene. They have also instituted comprehens­ive COVID -19 protection­s since the earliest days of the pandemic, including but not limited to increasing sanitation and social distancing, conducting health screenings, and supporting workers when cases occur.

The fact is that unlike in smaller workplaces or offices, five cases in a large food processing facility would represent only a tiny fraction of the workforce. In fact, judging from reported cases, food processing workers likely face lower COVID-19 transmissi­on risks inside facilities than they do while moving about their communitie­s.

Canada’s food and consumer goods’ manufactur­ing companies share Toronto and Peel’s concern about stopping COVID-19 and protecting workers while continuing to supply the products Canadians need. As the past year has demonstrat­ed so clearly, this ongoing crisis requires co-ordinated, smart government support for essential manufactur­ing supply chains.

Real commitment to prioritizi­ng the health of the country’s more than 300,000 food processing workers is absolutely necessary and is one of the smartest actions government­s can take. Instead of mandating inflexible shut downs that don’t achieve that goal, Toronto, Peel, and all government­s should develop co-ordinated plans that prioritize manufactur­ing and urgently ensure essential food and consumer goods workers’ immediate, priority access to the vaccines they so clearly deserve.

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